The colonial cities in Mexico were built on the backs of sorrow and silver. Gobs and gobs of silver. So much silver that the mines supplied more than a third of the world’s silver.
We visited some of these colonial Mexican cities on a six-week trip.
We flew first into Guadalajara, the second largest city in the country after Mexico City.
After a few days exploring Guadalajara – known for tequila, mariachis and its giant Mexican murals – we took the first-class bus first to Guanajuato, then to San Miguel de Allende and finally Morelia, staying a while in each town. Their historic centers are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Colonial Mexican cities
Colonial Mexico all started in 1521 (or earlier, depending on your take on history).
After Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztecs in 1521, Spanish adventurers fanned out in the Mexican heartland, seeking to make their fortunes from precious metals.
Gold was found, but silver was the real winner. And a necklace of silver mining cities quickly sprang up.
The riches went to building the cities’ lavish mansions, fountains, cathedrals, theaters, statues and monuments. And for three centuries, the Spanish lived in grand splendor in these Mexican colonial cities. Not surprisingly, today they’re some of the best cities in Mexico to visit.
San Miguel de Allende
Let’s start with San Miguel de Allende. It’s probably the most well-known to Canadians and Americans (it has a large expat community).
With its tangle of cobblestone streets, high-end art galleries, cornucopia of restaurants and gorgeous colonial mansions and courtyards hidden behind big wooden doors, it’s one of the most beautiful cities in Mexico.
Little wonder that Architectural Digest, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure and The New York Times have all raved about this fairytale town…
Guanajuato is just over an hour’s drive away from San Miguel de Allende.
A university town, Guanajuato is younger and more Mexican in feel than San Miguel de Allende, and it has far fewer foreign visitors.
The main part of the historic center is pedestrian-only, so you can walk freely about the tree-filled plazas, small museums, churches and the Teatro Juarez (a magnificent theater dating back to 1873).
Cars are relegated to driving underneath the city through an amazing network of one-way tunnels.
Mexico is known for its acceptance and celebration of death (witness its Day of the Dead festivities). And Guanajuato is no stranger when it comes to this fascination with death – one of its claims to fame is its bizarre Mummy Museum, showcasing more than 100 mummies behind glass cases.
We also took in lots of cool art at the Diego Rivera Museum, home to the famous Mexican muralist and painter (and Frida Kahlo’s husband and lover).
Elegant Morelia was the last of the colonial towns in Mexico we visited.
The capital of Mexico’s Michoacan state, it’s very authentic – a real, non-touristy city. Within its colonial heart (an area some 17 by 10 blocks), the city has over 200 historical buildings with Baroque and neo-classical facades.
Morelia is known for its candy – yes, we indulged (the coconut sweets were our favorite).
Morelia is also the prime jumping-off spot for an expedition into the nearby Sierra Madre mountains to view thousands upon thousands of Monarch butterflies in the UNESCO-listed butterfly sanctuaries.
Each year, the butterflies endure a remarkable migration from Eastern Canada and the U.S. to Mexico. They breed and spend the winter in patches of Oyamel fir forests (at a breath-sucking elevation of 10,000 feet high), about a three-hour drive from Morelia.
One day, we hiked and rode caballitos (small horses) up to the Chincua Sanctuary, where we were surrounded by orange-and-black Monarchs.
When clouds skittered overhead, they would fly to the tree branches to huddle together in huge beehive-like clumps to stay warm.
After Morelia, we hopped onto another first-class bus and made our way to the beach town of Zihuatanejo.
No more colonial history here – but some welcome rest-and-relaxation on Zihuatanejo’s beaches. And a chance to absorb the legacy left behind by the Spanish after building Mexico’s enchanting silver-mining colonial cities.
Other beautiful colonial cities in Mexico
The following three colonial cities also rank as some of the best cities to visit in Mexico…
The city of Oaxaca is best known for its vibrant market scene, diverse indigenous people and colonial buildings made of green volcanic stone.
One of the most popular indoor markets, Mercado Benito Juarez sells everything from freshly ground coffee beans to woven baskets.
Mercado 20 de Noviembre focuses on arts and crafts, including embroidered blouses and hand-crafted leather sandals.
Beyond the markets, the 16th century Baroque-style Templo de Santo Domingo church is an extraordinarily beautiful church with a monastery-turned-museum. Other great Oaxaca tours and activities include cooking classes and visiting the ruins of Mitla in the Teotitlan de Valle area.
Just south of Mexico City, you find Cuernavaca. Nicknamed the “City of Eternal Spring” for its year-round warm weather and verdant gardens, Cuernavaca is a popular weekend destination for wealthy residents of Mexico City.
The Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes built himself an imposing palace here. The Palacio de Cortes now houses Cuernavaca’s museum, the Museo Regional Cuauhnahuac, which includes an enormous mural by Diego Rivera.
The city is also home to the Robert Brady Museum (with fine arts collected by American artist and millionaire, Robert Brady), the Borda Gardens (once Emperor Maximilian’s summer house), magnificent mansions with iron-railed balconies and fine restaurants.
Also one of the best cities in Mexico to visit (and live), tranquil Queretaro is located about a two-hour drive north of Mexico City. Its colonial center is full of twisting alleys with restored colonial homes, Baroque churches and parks.
Top sights in Queretaro include La Casa de la Marquesa (an 18th century palace), the Gothic-Baroque cathedral and the Queretaro Regional Museum (housed in a monastery).
Map of these 6 colonial cities in Mexico
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Photos 2 to 12 and 15 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | Borda Gardens image courtesy Visit Mexico